The Amarna period, with its notable and controversial ruler Akhenaten, is one of Egypt's most peculiar and extraordinary periods in history. This period is distinguished by a profound break with polytheism's long-standing tradition. With Akhenaten's introduction of Atenism, the Egyptians endured an era and way of life that included upheavals and instability. This paper discusses why this ‘experimental monotheism’ failed despite the presence of a powerful figure by examining Atenism in three periods during its course of evolution.
In Thebes, Akhenaten took the throne as Amenhotep IV. During his second regnal year, he began to put his radical ideas into action. Egypt's religion was polytheistic, and it was a deeply ingrained norm. Egyptians worshipped various gods and goddesses, while divine ceremonies and rituals played an important role in their lives. These traditions and practices were altered during Akhenaten's reign. He presented Ra-Horakhty as a combination of the gods: Ra, the sun god, and Horus, the god of the sky. It had a significant connection to the god Aten, who was at the heart of Akhenaten's religion. "For over five hundred years, Thebes was the realm of the god Amun/Amun-Re, whose temple complex at Karnak during the 16th and 15th centuries grew impressively, with each monarch seemingly trying to surpass his predecessors’ building effort” (Hoffmeier, 2015, p. 91). Akhenaten started to construct temples and edifices dedicated to Aten at Karnak. However, unlike the previous monarchs, Akhenaten wanted his temple as soon as possible despite incomplete and evasive work. One of the reasons why Atenism did not last long is because of this. Building spectacular architectural monuments are important in order to achieve a big breakthrough in the sociopolitical organization, as it can be seen in other monotheistic religions. What Akhenaten did, on the other hand, was just erase the remnants of the former.
By the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten began to push Atenism as a monotheistic cult. Other gods were no longer permitted, priesthoods were abolished, and their sculptures were desecrated. The word 'gods' was removed from stone inscriptions because it is plural. Before Akhenaten’s monotheistic religion, the plurality of the divine world was never questioned (Johnston & Assmann, 2004, p. 18). The initial assumption about the emergence of Atenism as a monotheistic religion would make a major breakthrough by changing the course of history. This is not the case in this instance. It is obvious that the clergy played a significant role in the continuity of monotheistic religions as a school of thought. One of the elements that prevented the continuation of Atenism was Akhenaten's abolishment of the priesthood. As a wise ruler of his time, Akhenaten was likely aware of this fact, yet he chose to focus on the political agenda rather than the continuity of his religion.
In the end, Akhenaten made it clear that he was the only one who could properly comprehend Aten, therefore eliminating the priests' position and establishing a new capital city where he could spread Atenism. Priests played a significant role in Egypt's deeply ingrained polytheistic society. “The priests, especially those who looked after gods who were known to be powerful, like Ra at Heliopolis, and Isis, Osiris, Hathor, and Horus, became major political and economic forces, even to the extent of challenging the pharaoh and his court for ultimate supremacy” (Tignor, 2011, p. 43). The dominant status of the priesthood irritated Akhenaten and led him to reject other gods and goddesses in order to dismiss the clergy. By being the only conduit between Aten and the people, Akhenaten desired to become the sole authority and source of power. “Akhenaten's religion provides a good example of the demand of loyalty and thereby the requirement of obedience. Earlier in Egyptian religion, however, the association between the individual and the cult was quite different” (Spalinger, 1998, p. 253). As a result, the tenets of Atenism didn't appeal to the general public and didn't last long.
Atenism, as one of the earliest monotheistic religions, did not establish a school of thought that would persist for generations, which is critical for continuity. It was due to the way Akhenaten solidified his power by imposing monotheism. The king had no intention of changing the sociopolitical structure. No attempt was made to establish a legacy, nor a school of thought to ensure Atenism's long-term viability. Yet it would be wrong to describe it as a failure, as the evidence clearly demonstrates Akhenaten's absolute control over the politics of his time.
Hoffmeier, J. K. (2015). Akhenaten and the origins of monotheism. Oxford University Press.
Johnston, S. I., & Assmann, J. (2004). Monotheism and Polytheism. In Religions of the ancient world: A guide (pp. 17–31). essay, Harvard University Press.
Spalinger, A. (1998). The limitations of formal ancient Egyptian religion. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 57(4), 241–260. https://doi.org/10.1086/468651
Tignor, R. L. (2011). Egypt: A short history. Princeton University Press.
Image 1: Bust of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten). (n.d.). [Images]. Louvre (Paris, France). https://jstor.org/stable/community.14490622
Image 2: Great Temple of Amun (?); fragment, Akhenaten brings offerings to sun disk Aten. (n.d.). [Images]. https://jstor.org/stable/community.11900708